Rum is the largest of the Small Isles occupying the area between the Isle of Skye to the north and the Ardnamurchan peninsula to the south. It is shaped like a diamond and lies some 15 miles west of the mainland at Mallaig. It measures just over eight miles from east to west, and just under nine from north to south. It is the least fertile of the Small Isles and is defined by its largely mountainous terrain, which rises to a maximum height of 812m or 2,663ft on the summit of Askival, in the south east quadrant of the island. Askival and the surrounding peaks of Hallival, Trollival, Ainshval and Sgurr nan Gillean together form the Cuillin of Rum, which would be better known if they were not within sight of the even more spectacular Cuillin of Skye.
Although Rum might seem in many ways an unlikely site for settlement, it has produced some of the earliest evidence of human activity found anywhere in Scotland. Tools dating back to 7000BC have been found on the island, and it is thought these were left by our mesolithic or middle stone age ancestors visiting or settling on Rum in search of the bloodstone that can be found here, a rare and attractive alternative to flint. By 3000BC their neolithic successors were farming the few fertile parts of the island and there is evidence they brewed oats and barley with honey, meadowsweet and bog-myrtle. It is unclear whether the end result was drank or used as a repellent for the infamous Rum midges.
Rum was later used as a retreat by early Christian hermits in the century either side of 700, who left crosses in the landscape. It subsequently came under the control of the Norse and later the Lords of the Isles. The island emerged from the middle ages as a possession of the MacLeans of Coll. Despite the inhospitable and largely infertile landscape and a microclimate that subjects parts of the island to 300cm of rain each year, the population grew steadily. Islanders eked out a living by trapping the island's native red deer, farming any piece of land that could conceivably support cultivation, and fishing and hunting seabirds. The result was the removal of virtually all the island's once extensive native woodland and the extinction of the deer by the end of the 1700s.
At the start of the 1800s the population of Rum stood at a wholly unsustainable 443, and there were still 350 people living here in 1826. In that year the laird, MacLean of Coll, forcibly cleared most of the island and shipped 300 residents to a new life in Nova Scotia. The remaining 50 residents were compelled to follow them in 1828. They were replaced by 8,000 sheep, and shepherds brought in from Skye to look after them.
Sheep farming on Rum turned out not to be a success, and in 1845 the island was purchased by the Marquis of Salisbury. He turned it into a sporting estate, restocking the land with red deer and the rivers with trout. In 1888 the island was purchased for £35,000 by John Bullough a wealthy industrialist and mill owner from Lancashire who already owned Meggernie Castle and estate in Glen Lyon. He wanted a totally secluded holiday retreat, and Rum provided most of what he wanted: albeit with too many residents. There were 89 people living on Rum when he purchased it. Within three years this figure had been reduced to 53.
John Bullough's son George inherited Rum in 1891 and later built Kinloch Castle to replace the existing laird's house, Kinloch House, at the head of Loch Scresort. He also objected to the alcoholic implications of being "Laird of Rum", so renamed the island "Rhum". It was officially restored to its original name of Rum, which comes from the Gaelic Rùm, in 1991.
We tell the story of Kinloch Castle on its own feature page, but after World War One the family visited Rum less and less often. George Bullough died in France in 1939 on a golfing holiday. In 1957 the Bullough Trustees sold the whole of Rum except for the family mausoleum to the government agency Nature Conservancy for £23,000 (including the castle built for the equivalent of £15 million just 60 years earlier) and it became a National Nature Reserve.
Today's Rum is cared for by Scottish National Heritage and most of its 20 or so residents are involved in one way or another with the management of what has become a globally important nature reserve. Native woodlands are being reintroduced on a large scale, and Rum is home a long term study of the native red deer, which feature each year on BBC's "Autumnwatch". It is also home to feral goats, to Rum ponies, and to the Highland Midge: this is not somewhere to visit in high summer without your midge repellent.
Access is from Mallaig by the Small Isles Ferry, by smaller boats operating from Arisaig or Elgol, or by means of occasional visits from the cruise ship Hebridean Princess. Access to the island became considerably easier in Autumn 2004 when a ferry slipway was completed on the south shore of Loch Scresort, avoiding the need for passengers and goods to transfer from the ferry to a flit boat, the Rhouma, before landing at an older jetty in the loch.
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